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Barça Legends:  Lionel Messi

Barça Legends: Lionel Messi


Lionel Messi (Part 1)

by Othman Chebli

When he moved from Argentina to Catalonia as a 13 year old boy, all he wanted was to one day play with the Barcelona first team in the Camp Nou. No one would have predicted that he would make his official debut with the first team at the tender age of 17. Today he is viewed as the greatest player of his generation, and arguably one of the best players to ever play the beautiful game. 

Lionel Andres Messi was born in Rosario, Argentina on June 24, 1987. Growing up in a soccer environment, Lio was hugely influenced by his family. Rosario is a city known for producing world-class talent: some of the names include Gabriel Batistuta, Jorge Valdano, Javier Mascherano, Angel Di Maria, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino and plenty more. He grew up supporting the local team: Newell’s Old Boys (NOB). In fact, he was present for Maradona’s debut for the club during his brief stint there in 1993. His first birthday present was a NOB shirt. As soon as he could walk, Messi would go out to play in the street; he wanted to have a ball with him at all times. His mother, Celia, said that he did not sleep well without a ball by his side. Today, the whole world knows his iconic goal celebration: lifting his 2 index fingers to the sky, in dedication to his late grandmother. In fact, the only time in his professional career he did not dedicate a goal to her was when his son Thiago was born.  His grandmother, also named Celia, was the first one that took him to a “competitive” game and begged the coach to put him in when his team of older players was down a man. The moment he walked on the field, he received the ball to his left foot and zigzagged through the field, not passing to anyone, and went on to score twice in that game. There is a video on YouTube showing highlights from that game. If not for the poor video quality and age of Lio, you would think it’s a recent video of Messi.

Between the ages of 5 and 13, Lionel was always on teams older than his age and he always excelled - winning several trophies and then continuing on to the NOB academy. Everyone who knew him back then recalls him as a very shy and reserved child that never said anything other than “yes” or “no”. He only expressed himself well on the soccer field. He is always remembered as the really short kid who could dribble the ball for an entire game and score but never pass to anyone.

When Lio was 10 his family decided to consult a doctor because the kid was not growing and was much smaller than his peers. They took him to see a doctor that worked with Newell’s Old Boys, who was also passionate about football, which helped ease Lio into trusting him and listening carefully. Dr. Diego Schwarzstein diagnosed Lio with the absence of a growth hormone. But, luckily, this hormone could be engineered and injected under the skin daily. The problem was that the treatment was fairly expensive at a cost of $1500 a month, and Lio had to inject it himself. The doctor and Messi got along pretty well as Lio played for Newell’s, and the doctor was a NOB fan himself.  Because of this, they never lacked fun topics to discuss in order to ease the tension of a doctor’s cabinet. By the year 2000, more problems started arising; the family could no longer afford the treatment, and the team (NOB) stopped paying for it. Jorge, his father, then decided to take him to trials for other clubs in the country in hopes of finding someone to pay for his treatment, and also to pressure NOB into believing someone else might nab the little boy and take his talents away. After a few trials and rejections because of his small size, the family decided that the only solution was for Lio to go abroad and try his luck.

When the family thought there was no solution to their problem, some intermediaries connected to the prestigious Catalan agent Josep Maria Minguella, very close to Barcelona, got in touch with Jorge. The latter arranged for Messi and his family to be flown out to Barcelona for a trial and to discuss his health issues. After spending two weeks in Barcelona in what was supposed to be a one day trip, legendary Carles Rexach told Jorge and Lio that they could go back to Rosario with peace of mind, that they would be in touch, and that Lio would be back to sign in no time. In contrast, Barcelona’s first team was not doing so well in those days. Rexach was interested in signing a small foreign 13 year old player, but no decision was taken and the Messis started growing weary of the situation back home. The Messis had offers from AC Milan and Atletico Madrid.  Meanwhile, Jorge Valdano, the Argentine sporting director of Real Madrid, kept his eyes on the situation from afar. As months went by, Rexach insisted to everyone at the club that it was worth signing little Lio and that everything else would be dealt with. In an attempt to prove his commitment to signing Lio, Rexach then, while having a conversation with Minguella at a restaurant, asked the waiter for a pen and paper. What happened next is referred to by many as the “napkin contract story”. Rexach wrote: “In Barcelona on 14 December 2000 in the presence of Minguella and Horacio, Carles Rexach, technical director of FCB, commits to the signing, regardless of some opinions to the contrary of Lionel Messi, as long as the figures previously agreed are respected.” To some, this is the most important document in the recent history of FCB. The following month, NOB wanted to register him to the Argentine Federation, because -and this is key- Messi was not yet registered to the Rosario club. This effectively waived any potential transfer fee and eased the process, but the Messis wanted to confirm the deal with FCB before that happened.

Ultimately, Rexach agreed to grant Messi’s demands: a house for the family, travel costs, and a job for Jorge, as well as treatment. The signing of Messi did not come cheap; in fact, it surpassed every other youth team player. This sparked heated debates within the Barcelona directors as the president wanted to win NOW, and Rexach insisted on paying for everything to bring Lio to Barcelona. Little did Joan Gaspart, then-president at FCB, know that Messi would debut for the first team three years later. Everything was agreed upon after Rexach guaranteed that Lio would be worth signing.

The Messis then had to make their final decision. The boy could not think of joining any club other than Barcelona and the family had to make up their mind about moving across the Atlantic. Finally, on 8 January 2001, the club finalized the contract details; Messi would earn around €600k, and receive payments for his image rights, Jorge would work for a security company owned by FCB, the club would also pay for rent for the family, and, finally, the club would start paying the hormonal treatment that would increase his height to 1m67cm. He ended up reaching a height of 1m69cm.

On 15 February 2001, after weeks of preparation and tension, a rush to get passports, travel authorization and suitcases, the Messis began their journey to Barcelona.

To be continued…

Barça Legends:  Andoni Zubizarreta

Barça Legends: Andoni Zubizarreta

By Isaac Moreno

Given current events, we should focus a new Barcelona Legend on the figure of Andoni Zubizarreta, FC Barcelona General Manager until few days ago. Many of us know him only for holding this position, but he is indeed a Legend of Barcelona. He was a goalkeeper and for almost 10 years, until Victor Valdés appeared, he was strongly missed by the supporters. To get an idea, in the ten years between these two legends we had in goal Busquets (a proto-Neuer and father of Sergio Busquets), Vitor Baia (Portuguese, supposedly then the best in the world and a fiasco in our team), Hesp (a very decent Dutch keeper), Reina (former Liverpool player), Dutruel (a French keeper barely remembered), Bonano (nice Argentinean dude) and Rustu Reçber (a Turkish goalie currently in Beşiktaş).

Zubizarreta, or Zubi as he was called, made his debut in the First Division of Spain with Athletic de Bilbao in 1981, when he was only 20 years old, and he would win 2 Ligas with the Basque team in 82/83 and 83/84. Already considered the best goalkeeper in Spain he signed for Barcelona in 1986 where he received the warm Catalan hostility because he came to move from the goal another legend and beloved player: Urruti. It took him a year of whistles and boos in Camp Nou but finally supporters understood the goal was well covered with him and so it was for 8 years in which he was part of the “Dream Team”. In Barcelona, he won 4 Ligas, 2 Copas del Rey, 1 UEFA Cup and 1 European Cup (the first one ever in 1992).

His style was defined as sobri, which in Catalan is used for objects that lack superfluous ornaments, like an old wooden table, and it is certainly hard to remember Zubi flying in for a diving save. He was mostly praised for his positioning, the ball seemed often to go where he was, and for the control of the long ball, something not that common in goalkeepers today.  This same sobriety in his character made him an important element among his teammates, being part of the vaques sagrades (the sacred cows), a group formed by the most prominent players. He was also named captain of FC Barcelona.

He came to Barcelona when we had a British coach, Terry Venables, and left when Johann Cruyff blamed him for what is called in Catalunya as La desfeta d’Atenas (The destruction in Athens) when Barcelona lost the Champions League Final (then European Cup) 4-0 against AC Milan. The story is well-known: in the flight back from Athens, Zubizarreta was told he was out of the team for good. He complained he could not even say goodbye to the supporters in a proper way. Such is life, they told him and without a proper good-bye he left to Valencia where he played for 4 years before retiring. This tactless farewell was not due to Zubi’s performance in the final game (awful like the rest of the players), but with Johann Cruyff’s revolutionary ideas. The Dream Team played a very offensive game that often left the defense unprotected (Koeman, who played as the last man, was often sent off with a red car for trying to stop counter-attacks), and that forced the keeper to step ahead and play with his feet, which was the worst skill Zubizarreta had. So Cruyff’s vision was a goalkeeper who could play like a defender. In those times there were none to be found, so he substituted Zubizarreta with his own creation, Carles Busquets, a goalkeeper bred in La Masia, who was good with his feet and terrible with his hands.

Athens, 1994


After hanging up his cleats he worked with Jorge Valdano to create a sports consulting group called Make a Team, which is part of Ernst&Young and started his career as General Manager in Athletic de Bilbao in 2001 where he lasted 3 years. In 2010 he was part of the candidacy that won the elections for Barcelona presidency and became his friend Pep Guardiola’s boss (some people say now ex-friend). A year later he appointed Tito Vilanova as Pep’s substitute. A year after that, president Rosell appointed Tata Martino. A year after that it seems Zubizarreta appointed Luís Enrique. Half a year later substitute president Bartomeu fired Zubizarreta. And that’s where we are now.

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